Faith, Doubt and Playing Possum

My brain feels like a whirling dervish this week with all the scandal, intrigue and assorted craziness in the news. I feel like I’m living in a bad soap opera with FBI raids on the President’s lawyer, Speakers of both the US House and the Ohio House stepping down unexpectedly and military strikes on Syria that put us closer to a nuclear showdown with Russia than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment but I can’t seem to stop watching and reading the news like the proverbial train wreck. I have managed to get engrossed in a couple of good novels as a respite from the 24-hour bad news cycle. One is a book on tape I listen to while driving, James Patterson’s “Woman of God,” and the other on my Nook, Dan Brown’s “Origin.” But of course both of those are full of conflict and profound theological questions about human suffering and human nature itself. And in my spare time I’m wading through a weighty and rather depressing tome entitled “What Are We Doing Here?” by Marilynne Robinson for a book club I’m in.

Mingled in with all that drama has been a personal struggle with guilt. On Wednesday of this week I had the painful task of dispatching a possum whose only offense was making his domicile under our deck. I’ve been trying to trap him or her for a few weeks and until this week had only managed to feed chipmunks who are too small to trip the trap and catch a stray cat. Every morning that the trap was by our deck I was relieved to find it empty, but Wednesday it was fully occupied by a sleeping possum who seemed quite content. It had finished off the apple that I used as bait and unlike the cat seemed quite content and even trusting when I carried him/her to a watery grave in our pond. It would have been much easier on me if she/he had hissed and growled at me, but that is not the way of the possum.

The possum’s capital offense was invading turf that belongs to us – we have a deed–but then I guess possums can’t read; so posting a no trespassing sign would probably not have done any good. Fearing he/she would attract or produce more furry friends that could do damage to the foundation of our house my wife and I felt justified in this dirty deed. I used to take such critters a few miles away and release them, but that is actually against the law of the land and increasingly impossible as urban sprawl takes over more and more habitat for our four-footed friends.

On this second week of Eastertide I couldn’t help theologizing a bit about this experience, and it occurred to me that there is a parallel here between my possum and what we did to Jesus a couple millennia ago. Their offenses were much the same– invading someone else’s space and making them/us uncomfortable. Just as the possum created conflict for me about his/her right and mine to occupy this space on Brock Road, so Jesus created such a degree of discomfort and cognitive dissonance by proclaiming a higher ethical standard of God’s reign that threatened the Jewish and Roman homeowners in Jerusalem that they set a trap for him and executed him on trumped up charges of blasphemy.

The big difference of course where these two tales of death diverge is in their outcome. And no I’m not suggesting Jesus was just playing possum in that tomb for 3 days. He was just as dead as my possum – ask his mother who watched him be nailed to that cross. Ask the centurion who ran a spear into his side to make sure he was dead. Jesus was dead!

But Eastertide is the season of resurrection – even in chilly Ohio where spring has been delayed. I saw a meme on Facebook that said “Mother Nature was late delivering spring because Father Time was driving and refused to stop and ask for directions.” But better late than never we had at least a teaser of spring this week. The daffodils, hyacinths and forsythia are blooming, the crocuses are croaking, and the robins are digging up earthworms in my yard.

I had an hour between two appointments on Thursday, our first warm day; so I went for a walk in one of Columbus’ lovely metro parks. I took exception to a sign that told me the trail I took was 1.1 miles. I know it had to be longer than that because it took me much longer to hike it that it used to. I was also struck for the first half mile or so by how dead everything looked. Dead trees and limbs were all over the woods, everything was the barren brown of winter. And then I looked a little closer and saw that there amongst the detritus of winter’s death there were tiny green leaves quietly emerging from some of the branches. When I walked by the lake there was a young couple facing each other on a picnic bench and staring into each other’s eyes as only new lovers can do.

Signs of new life are there even if they aren’t obvious to a casual observer. Even my poor departed possum will provide nutrients to the soil and food for some birds of prey. Even in the news there are signs of hope, but we may have to work to find them. Today’s headlines were all about the bombing of Syria and the most recent scandals in Washington. But back in the metro section was an editorial that gave me hope. One of my heroes in days gone by is a local preacher here in Columbus, Ohio who is often called the father of the Social Gospel.

Rev. Washington Gladden died 100 years ago this year after a long and illustrious career of championing social justice causes as the pastor of First Congregation Church on East Broad St. just a few blocks from the state capitol. Today’s editorial was about a memorial garden that the church is building on property next to the church to honor Gladden. The park, to open in August, will include “exhibitions on social justice issues, an artist-in-residence program to teach children about social justice, along with art, lectures and forums, community dialogues and performances.” Current Sr. Pastor Tim Aherns says plans call for “a refuge of waterfalls, public art, green space, trees and a pathway of quotes about the pursuit of justice.”

Gladden himself was an early advocate for ecumenism and church engagement in political reform. He was friends with Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, and every prominent public figure in Columbus. “At the time of Gladden’s death,” the editorial concludes, “The Ohio State Journal—which regularly had published his social justice sermons on Page One—called him the ‘First Citizen’ of Columbus.” The full editorial is at http://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20180414/editorial-new-park-to-honor-columbus-social-justice-champion

My take away from all of this disjointed rambling is that there is always a spark of new life hidden in the darkest days. That’s what resurrection is all about. God is not playing possum. Spring may not arrive when the calendar says so, but it will arrive. Justice will roll down like waters, maybe not today but someday. Easter didn’t end two weeks ago, it just began, and that liturgical season lasts until Pentecost when God saw that even showing the disciples Jesus’ hands and side wasn’t proof enough and sent the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit to light a fire in those believers that no one, no thing, no how has or ever will extinguish. We believe Lord, help our unbelief.

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O Lord, How Long?

I helped conduct a funeral for a woman the other day who had written an interesting inscription in her Bible. She wrote, “Please have someone read Isaiah 40:31 at my funeral.” That verse reads, “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” That’s normally one of my favorite Scriptures, but what I noticed about it this time through the lens of my own personal grief for my father and mother-in-law (both died in the last 5 weeks) was that Isaiah doesn’t address an important question raised by that assurance.

That unanswered question is like a commercial that seems to run non-stop on our local TV stations and annoys me greatly. The ad is for a company that does home insulation and keeps saying that they can make your house warmer in winter and cooler in summer for “only $99 a month.” I keep asking the television what seems like an obvious omission of facts, “for how many months?” but so far I’ve gotten no reply. In a similar vein I find myself wanting to ask Isaiah to be more specific about these comforting words, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” That’s great but how long do we have to wait to renew our strength?

I know grief takes time and it’s different for everyone going through it. I have not felt typical sadness usually associated with grief, but what I have noticed is a lack of energy and motivation. That’s not out of the ordinary for me in recent months because of chronic pain, but this sluggish feeling has been even more persistent than usual.

A few weeks before my saintly mother-in-law died she told my wife that she “was ready for her angels’ wings.” I don’t yet have her faith or patience. But they do say misery loves company; so I guess I should feel better knowing I’m one of many who have asked God just how long we have to wait to get our eagles’ wings? Many of God’s children have chafed under the burden of waiting. When I did a search for “how long O Lord” in the Bible I got dozens of hits, most of which sound a lot like these two examples:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2)

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalms 13:1-2)

We sang the marvelous hymn “Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart” in church recently and the line that says, “Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer” was one of those that seemed like it was directed right for me. I know our time is not God’s time, that “a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4) But I am still impatient and want to know how long I have to wait for this aching in my soul to ease.

The other thing I discovered when I searched for “how long” in my Bible was that even Jesus utters those words of impatience himself, only his frustration is usually with humans not with God. In Mark 9 he comes upon a father with a mute son who tells him that Jesus’ disciples have tried to heal his son but have failed.
Jesus responds first to the disciples , “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Then he turns to the father and says, “Bring him to Me.” 20 Then they brought the son to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.

21 So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” And the father’s classic response is also my honest plea to God when I get impatient: 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Yes Lord, forgive my childish whining about how long. I do believe, but please help my unbelief.

Wilderness Times: When Only God Knows! Ezekiel 37:1-14

I just recently figured out the answer to a problem that I know befuddles many of us Ohioans, namely why well-trained meteorologists are so often wrong about our weather forecasts. I’ve decided it’s not climate change, nor is it crazy Ohio where we have three or four seasons in a 48 hour period. It’s because the weather people are all too young! With the exception of Jim Gynal and Ben Gelber all of our local forecasters are young people. Yes, they have Doppler radar and other fancy tools but what they don’t have are old bones and joints that reliably tell us seniors when the weather’s changing.

I bet you’re wondering what weather forecasting has to do with our text for today! The connection is that both are about old bones. The difference is that in Ezekiel’s vision the bones he saw were no longer predicting or doing anything. Ezekiel walks among this valley of dry bones and makes it very clear that these bones are very dry and have been dead a long time.

Here’s the context for this most familiar of Ezekiel’s visions. He is relating this vision to the people of Judah about 600 years before Christ. Ezekiel is a priest who along with the ruling classes of Judah is a political prisoner in Babylon. Geographically Babylon was located where modern day Baghdad sits today in Iraq. Then and now it was and is a hot, dry wilderness.

Our nephew Michael spent time in that part of the world a few years ago. He was stationed in Kuwait next door to Iraq when he was in the Air Force. Michael was a mechanic at the time and told us about a day that was about 105 degrees when he was working on a plane and forgot where he was. He reached down and picked up a wrench that was lying in the desert sun and immediately burned his hand.

Living in that heat came to mind when I was thinking about Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Remember the Exiles were mostly people of Israel’s upper class, not used to these harsh living conditions. The Interpreter’s Bible describes the Babylonian exile this way: “The Israelites exchanged their hilly homeland and pleasant climate of Jerusalem for the flat and hot Babylonia lowlands…and forced manual labor.”

I’m sure the Babylonia Chamber of Commerce advertised to visitors that their climate was a “dry heat.” I’ve never been in Iraq or Babylon, but I’ve been in Phoenix in mid-summer; and I don’t care how dry the heat is, anything above 100 degrees is just too darn hot.

We’ve been thinking about “Wilderness Time” in this Lenten Sermon Series because whether it’s a voluntary retreat from daily living to draw closer to God or the wilderness is forced upon us by life’s circumstances, solitary time with ourselves and God is good for our souls – but only if we embrace it.

As many of you know our family has been doing some wilderness time this last month. My father died on February 12 and due to family schedule complications we set his memorial service and burial for this past weekend. Little did we know then that on March 1st Diana’s mother would go into a rapid decline and pass away on March 5th. These were not unexpected life events. My dad was 96 and Diana’s mom, Mary, was 100, but getting a double whammy of mortality definitely put us into the wilderness. We celebrated both of their lives last weekend, and Ezekiel’s image of dry bones seemed all too real in those cold, windy cemeteries.

Wilderness time is often hard to embrace. The exiles were none too happy to be carted off to Babylon, not just because they were uprooted from their homes and familiar surroundings, they were also yanked up by their theological roots. The foundations of their faith were supported by four basic pillars: 1) God’s blessings were assured them as God’s chosen people; 2) the land God had given to their ancestors would be protected forever; 3) the throne of David and his descendants would continue forever; and 4) the Temple at Jerusalem was the only suitable place for proper worship of their God.

When the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BC the Israelites theological scoreboard suddenly read 0-4. Their beloved temple was in ruins, and the foundations of their faith were not only shaken they were pulverized. So what can we learn today from this ancient history? Aren’t we a lot like these Israelites? As it was for them it’s quite natural to want our faith to be comforting “Good News,” that’s even what the word “Gospel” means. So like the Israelites we are tempted by the same prosperity gospel that promises worldly comforts as rewards to God’s chosen people. Like Ezekiel’s contemporaries we sometimes forget that God chooses us not to be privileged but to be servants to others. We’d like Easter morning without Good Friday, but let’s not forget that much of the Bible describes a lot of bad news and how people like us respond to being in the wilderness.

Psalm130 was written in one of those wilderness times. It begins “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” That Psalm is known by the title “De Profundis” which in Latin means “out of the depths.” I woke up one day last summer in one of those wrong-side-of-the-bed moods and thought of De Profundis to describe my mood. I wrote in my journal that day “De Profundis is Latin for “O crap, I have to get up and face another day of aches and pains and bad news!” Am I the only one who has days like that? I saw a cartoon awhile back that describes me all too often. It said “Sometimes I wake up grumpy, and other times I let him sleep.”

When I first started thinking about this dry bones text I pictured it in terms of personal or individual wilderness times that come to all of us. And then when Diana’s mom died that introspective kind of wilderness seemed even more real. But then I reread Ezekiel’s words and I realized what he’s talking about is a lot bigger than personal grief or loss. Verse 11 says, “Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” God says this valley of dusty, dry, lifeless bones is a metaphor for “the whole house of Israel.” A whole people, a whole nation is dead to God and hopeless, completely cut off. They’ve been in exile a long time; the buzzards and other wild life have picked their bones clean.

I’ve been trying to think of some contemporary situation to compare the Exile to. The heart-breaking pictures we see on the news today of the devastation and ruins of Syria are the closest image I can think of to understand how hopeless the exiles must have been feeling.

But as pitiful as this image of dry bones is Ezekiel is not sympathetic to Israel’s plight. This vision from Chapter 37, believe it or not, is from the “good news” section of the book of Ezekiel. He spends the first 32 chapters of this book passing judgment on his own people for their failure to obey God’s will. He warns them that bad things will happen if they continue to break their covenant relationship with God. The Israelites remember clearly God’s part of the bargain made with Moses, to give them a homeland, to make them and their descendants prosperous. But in their comfort and prosperity they have conveniently forgotten their half of the covenant – namely to live obediently, justly and humbly before God. Their leaders have become greedy oppressors who according to Amos “sell the poor for a pair of shoes.” Things have gotten so corrupt and unjust for the common people of Israel that at one point Ezekiel even declares that his people have out sinned Sodom. That is not a record you want to break!

In chapter 6 Ezekiel describes in gory detail the consequences of such unfaithful living: “Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense stands shall be broken; and I will throw down your slain in front of your idols. 5 I will lay the corpses of the people of Israel in front of their idols; and I will scatter your bones around your altars. ….7 The slain shall fall in your midst; then you shall know that I am the Lord. (Chapter 6)
That phrase “you shall know that I am the Lord” is a refrain that recurs in Ezekiel. Verse 14 of our text for today says, “You shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” That doesn’t mean God intervenes to punish us, but God wants the consequences of our bad choices to help us see that there’s only one God, and we’re not it!

I doubt that I need to draw the parallels between Israel and the current state of affairs in our country and other parts of the world where the ways of God have been trampled in the dust by the idolatry of living in a secular and materialistic society. It is all too easy to despair, to lose hope.

When we are searching for an elusive answer to one of life’s tough problems friends may ask us, “What are you going to do?” And a common reply is “God only knows!” meaning we don’t have a clue. In his vision Ezekiel hears God ask him one of those tough questions. As he is walking around in this valley full of dry bones God says, “Mortal, can these bones live?” and Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

What do we do when we are in one of those situations where only God knows the answer to what we should do? When we suddenly lose a job or a loved one; when our world seems to be collapsing around us? And it seems God isn’t readily available to share whatever it is that only God knows! Or sometimes we’re too stubborn or proud to pray for God’s guidance. We might not like what we hear!

Put yourself in Ezekiel’s place. How would you answer God’s question, “Can these bones live?” Or look at the homeless, hopeless refugee children in Syria, or the suffering caused by gun violence in our own country. Why do we have so much more gun violence than other developed countries? What are we going to do to stop consuming violence in video games and entertainment? How can we help people suffering from mental illness, or those who are bullied? How are we supposed to love the bully and heal whatever wounds he is suffering that cause violent behavior? How do we provide support systems and ways to deal with pain and depression so people don’t get hooked on opioids or other drugs? Can our badly divided nation live again and achieve the high ideals of our democracy? God only knows!

And yet that hopeless cry of despair is actually the beginning of hope for a whole nation of dry bones. When we look at a hopeless situation through our own mortal eyes we see no way dead bones can live again. When I held the urn of my father’s ashes in the cemetery last weekend I knew there was no way those ashes could live again, at least not in the form we knew as my dad. But those ashes can provide nourishment for what grows in God’s good earth.

Likewise out of tragic death at the Parkland High School massacre has emerged a new generation who are taking their civic responsibility to a whole new level. Whether you agree with their methods and goals or not you have to applaud their determination to make a difference. New life can arise out of death. I saw that at both of our family funerals last week where new life was in abundance in the joyful, energetic laughter and play of young great grandchildren. May we have eyes of faith to see signs of life even in the midst of death.

Remember the dry bones story is a vision Ezekiel is having. It is one of four visions in Ezekiel. And it’s the only one of the four that does not begin with a date identifying when Ezekiel had the vision. Elie Weisel, a survivor of the valley of dry bones known as the Holocaust, commented that the reason this vision has no date is that every generation needs to see it and experience it for themselves. Dry bones are a timeless description of the human condition.

And that’s the key – the valley of dry bones is a human condition seen through finite, mortal eyes. But Ezekiel was a priest. He of all people should have known the answer to God’s question, “Mortal can these bones live?” When we began this Lenten season on Ash Wednesday many Christians received the mark of ashes on our foreheads with the words from Genesis, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Those words are not some morbid reminder that we are all going to die. We say them to help us remember that in the very beginning of God creates human life by forming us from dust and breathing life into us. Can these bones live? Of course they can live if God chooses to breathe his Holy Spirit on them.

And that’s exactly what happens in the rest of the vision. “Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

The Hebrew word for breath is ruah which is also the word for spirit, the holy breath of the one with whom all things are possible. When seen through mortal eyes this is a dead, dry bone. But when the Holy Spirit helps us lift our eyes to catch a vision through God’s eyes hopelessness turns to rejoicing and death becomes resurrection. Seeing life and death through God’s eyes helps us confess our sinful nature honestly and brings us to our knees. And it’s from there we can see new beginnings that God alone can see.

And so as people with a vision of Easter in our eyes wilderness times call us to renew our covenant with God–because it is in the wilderness that we remember who we are and whose we are.
Can these bones live again? – You can bet your life on it!

Pastoral Prayer for Hearing One’s Call, January 28

O Savior God we know you have called us to follow you, but sometimes that call is as hard to understand as finding our way on a dense foggy morning. Be our fog horn and a beacon to light our way. As our nation struggles with issues of security versus compassion give our nation’s leaders wisdom to make good decisions that are fair to all.

O God of grace we come to call upon you again today because you have first called us. You have called us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you. When we look at all the injustice in our world today and when we honestly confess our failure to love others and ourselves the way you love us, we fall on our knees in humility and shame.

Please forgive us for the times we have rushed by someone in need because we were too busy or too uncomfortable to stop and help. In this time of prayer give us ears to hear both the challenge and the comfort of the Gospel. Whisper words of comfort and mercy to soothe our guilt, words of wisdom to light the narrow road less taken, and words of courage to banish our doubts.

All of us have needs for personal healing of our bodies and minds and to mend relationships that are strained or broken by the challenges of daily living. When we add to our prayer concerns the needs of our friends and family and those of our community and world the weight of those concerns can overwhelm us. That’s when it’s hard for us to hear your call to minister to the lost and least, to love our neighbors and even our enemies as ourselves. That’s really hard, Lord.

And so we pray that your holy spirit will descend on every one of us today. You know our needs even before we ask, and we are often too busy or feel too insignificant to ask. We cannot fathom the wideness of your grace and mercy. That’s why we worship and pray and study your word to be reminded again and again that nothing is impossible with you.

We lift up to you Lord those named and unnamed today, for victims of abuse and violence, for our nation’s leaders, for those suffering from floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Hear our prayers O God and let us hear clearly what you are calling us to do in response to improve the lives of those in our corner of the world. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days so that when you call us we can answer, here I am Lord, send me.

We pray in the name of the one who answered the most important call of all – the one that led him to the cross of salvation. Let us join our hearts and voices in the prayer he taught his followers to pray.

Like a Woman

Bertha Hemmert was my surrogate grandma when I was growing up on Murray Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Not that I needed another grandma—I had two very loving ones already; but a little kid can never get too much of that special love that grandmas are so good at. And Mrs. Hemmert as I knew her then had one big advantage over my “real” grandmothers—she was just across the alley no more than 50 feet from our back door. She was probably younger than I am now, but to my 7 year-old self she seemed ancient. I don’t remember how she first befriended me. It was likely one of the many times I hit a stray baseball into her yard and had to go fetch it.

Two things I remember very well—I enjoyed hanging out at her house and “helping” her with chores like cleaning green beans from her garden. I’m sure I was often more trouble than help but I always felt welcome to drop in whenever I wanted. The other thing I remember – because my family has never let me forget it – is that one day while helping Mrs. Hemmert in the kitchen I announced to her that “I think I want to be a woman when I grow up.”
No, that was not some confusion over my sexual identity. As I reflect back on that memory and my childhood I have come to believe it meant I just felt loved being in her company and wanted to enjoy that feeling as much as I could. And it was not just Mrs. Hemmert who represented that unconditional love and acceptance for me. The most important people in my early life who gave me that kind of affirmation were all women—my grandmothers, my mom and my Aunt Ruth.

My reflection on those childhood relationships have been inspired by all of the events in our society in the past year that have raised awareness of female power and courage in spite of oppression and abuse–and by the guilt and remorse I feel that in spite of my life-long appreciation for women I have been part of the male dominated power structure that I could not be insulated from growing up in the 1950’s. Mrs. H. was typical of all of my female role models as I grew up. They were all stay-at-home mothers and homemakers, and they lived out that vocation proudly and well.

Proverbs 31 and has been used and misused to praise and eulogize many women like those. It says in part “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. (Proverbs 31:10-15 NRSV) Of course the women in my life were the “servant-girls” for their families rather than having any, but that proverb is attributed to King Lemuel’s mother giving her son advice; and he could relate to that particular reference.

The misuse part of that Proverb has been on the hard-working from before dawn to after dark woman who is subservient to her husband. But listen to what other parts of that proverb say about women of strength as entrepreneurs and teachers of wisdom: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” (Vss.16-19, 24-29)

That part of this proverb reminds us that to limit women, or anyone, to a particular role or station in life is not only foolish but absolutely wrong. To respect or pay women less for the same work men do is unjust. To treat women as sex-objects in blatant, abusive or even subtle or unintended ways is wrong and must stop.
I was proud of Mrs. Hemmert and wanted to be like her – because “the teaching of kindness was on her tongue” and she treated me as someone of value and worth. Women today are demanding the same kind of respect and dignity and unconditional love that the wonderful women in my life gave me. Did they raise a perfect son or grandson or nephew? Of course not. There we too many sexist forces in my life in the way I was taught what it meant to be a man; in the ways all of the heroes of American history were portrayed as powerful white men; in the male-dominated leadership of the churches I was nurtured in; in the movies and television shows I watched; in the literature I read; and the list goes on and on.

But this I know, the seeds of love and compassion were sown in my heart and soul by people like Mrs. Hemmert. I have often been embarrassed when my family tells that story about my wanting to be a woman; but today I am proud to proclaim that I am still striving to be like her; to offer everyone the kind of affirmation and hospitality she gave to me. I want to be like the women who have had the courage to speak their truth to power in the past few months. I want to be like the men that Oprah included in her great speech at last night’s Golden Globes when she said:
“So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”

Pastoral Prayer for 3rd Sunday in Advent

God of Mercy and Grace, again we pause to make ourselves aware of your presence. We know you are with us everywhere but in the rush and busyness of this season it’s easy to forget that and even to forget what Christmas is all about. Help us to center our hearts and souls just now that through Scripture and the blessed gift of music we will hear again and feel again the night and day of your eternal love. Bless these musicians as they proclaim the Good News, and give us open hearts to listen and believe.

Help us suspend our cynicism and doubt like Joseph did. Send your spirit to assure us that when life seems too much to bear, when we see no way out of impossible circumstances, if we seek your guidance you will show us the way, truth and life revealed so long ago in Christ Jesus. As we often sing, Love came down at Christmas, but that was just the ultimate expression of your presence that was with Sarah and Abraham, Ruth and Naomi, Jonah and Isaiah and all of your children in every generation since creation began.

And the sharing of your love didn’t stop at Bethlehem either – just as your spirit came to Mary and Joseph before the birth so it continued to protect the holy family from Herod’s evil way. The love that came down at Christmas was nurtured by Joseph and Mary; it was shared and proclaimed by Paul and the apostles and Christian martyrs and missionaries across the centuries in every corner of the world.

That Love still inspires kindness and mercy today, even in the midst of violence and unrest in the streets of Columbus or Jerusalem. It inspires sacrificial love as we share our blessings with those less fortunate and in those who will be traveling to Mexico 11 days from now to share the universal message of love that transcends all language and cultural barriers. We ask your blessing on those 12 messengers of Christ’s love that we have named today. Fill each of them to overflowing with the love of Christ and guide them safely on this mission of mercy.
In these final days of Advent, O Lord, we pray for the lonely, the sick, the discouraged and hopeless. We pray for generous hearts that our preparation for this holy birth will truly reflect the awe and mystery that is there every day for those who are humble enough to trust that with you all things are possible. We ask these things in Jesus’ name, as we pray the prayer he taught us to pray.

Longing to Belong – A Prodigal Prequel, Genesis 32:3-8, 22-31

[Sermon preached at Northwest UMC, October 8, 2017]

Do you remember what it was like to be at summer camp or some other foreign place and be so miserably homesick that you thought you would die? I certainly do. The gospel song that says, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” describes that horrible feeling for me. But homesickness is not just a childhood disease. Adolescence, mid-life crises, old age are all recurring outbreaks of homesickness—of feeling broken and alone in a strange world where we wonder what we’re doing here? This week after another horrific massacre of innocent people in Las Vegas I’m very homesick for a world with less violence and hate.

Some homesickness is quite normal. As teens or young adults we are the ones who think we want freedom and our own space. We are the ones who get embarrassed when our parents want to hug and kiss us in public because we’re much too grown up for that kid stuff. And that’s OK. It’s all part of growing up. And we’re the ones who think God’s rules for living are too confining, too old-fashioned, and certainly our parents are. We can do much better on our own. And that’s OK too. So we go out on our own and we blow it, not once, but several times, and that’s also OK because we learn from those experiences. But what isn’t OK is when we are too proud to admit that we were wrong or that we really do need help.

It’s hard to admit we’re wrong. People just love to say, “I told you so,” don’t they? So we don’t even try to be reconciled with family or friends or even with God because we’re afraid we’ll be rejected or ridiculed. That’s where our friend Jacob finds himself in our Scripture for today. What we have in Chapter 32 is just a snippet of the story of Jacob that takes up half of the book of Genesis. It’s a fascinating saga so full of deception, incest, polygamy, fake murders and kidnapping that it could be mistaken for a modern day soap opera. I’d recommend taking the time to read or re-read the whole story because we can only deal with one brief but very dramatic episode today. The bad blood between Jacob and his twin brother Esau that is the impetus for what we read today begins back in Genesis 25 when Jacob, still in utero, grabs the heel of Esau and tries to pull him back into the womb so he, Jacob, could claim the prize of being Isaac’s first born.

As a young adult Jacob, true to form, tricks his near-sighted old father into giving him the blessing that by custom belonged to the eldest son Esau. And because of his underhanded tactics Jacob has to flee from his angry brother to the land of Haran where he lives and prospers with his Uncle Laban. The details of how Jacob and Laban take turns deceiving each other and have a falling out many years later is fascinating – but that will have to be a teaser for another sermon. Except to say that it sets the stage for why we find Jacob in our text today heading back to Canaan to finally face the brother he cheated.

Anyone here have any conflicts in your family? Sure we do, we all do so much that there are times when I think the term “dysfunctional family” is redundant. Conflict in human relationships is inevitable unless we choose to keep our relationships superficial. Some of us are like comedian Ron White who says, “I had the right to remain silent, I just didn’t have the ability.” And introverts like me are often so quiet nobody knows what we’re thinking. Neither extreme is satisfying because both leave us feeling inauthentic and homesick.

We live in a time of terrible isolation and loneliness. We live in houses or apartments in close proximity to other people but don’t really know our neighbors. The Las Vegas shooter was so much a loner that none of his neighbors or his own brother really knew him, maybe not even the woman he lived with. And tellingly his brother said they never really knew their father either. We may never know the reason he killed and maimed so many innocent people, and it’s even less likely that we will ever know the depth of the loneliness or homesickness that drove him to do the unspeakable.

None of that is to make any excuses for mass murder, but it is a call for all of us to come clean about our own homesickness. Where in our lives have we alienated ourselves from others? Where have we failed to love our neighbors because we simply don’t know them? What guilt or disagreement has driven us to move away from family or friends, or to withdraw within ourselves? I heard a great quote from James Baldwin this week on NPR. He said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Jacob was homesick. In his message to Esau he says, “I have lived with Laban as an alien.” He is heading home and dreading the inevitable confrontation with the brother he has wronged. Jacob is imagining the worst – that he will get his just desserts; and so he does everything he can think of to appease his brother. He sends Esau enough gifts to rival the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. In one section of Chapter 32 that we skipped today for brevity there is an inventory of all the livestock Jacob sends ahead to Esau with his messengers, and the list totals 530 head of livestock. Jacob also bows and scrapes by addressing Esau repeatedly as “my lord” while referring to himself as Esau’s servant. To his credit Jacob is very transparent about what he’s doing. He concludes his message to Esau by saying that he has sent these gifts “in order that I may find favor in your sight.” The only thing missing is an actual apology for cheating his brother out of his birthright, but that may be expecting too much.

Jacob’s messengers return from their mission to report that Esau is coming to meet him. That sounds promising, but then the messengers add the kicker – he’s got 400 men with him. That’s like challenging your big brother to a game of basketball and being told he’s bringing LeBron James and the Cavs with him!

“Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed,” verse 7 tells us, and he devises a clever plan to save his hide, even if it means putting others, including his wives and kids at risk. He divides his large company into two groups, thinking that if one group is destroyed by Esau and his army the others will be able to escape.
Finally as a last resort Jacob does what he should have done first – he prays. Anyone else ever forget to pray until things get tough or is that just me? We didn’t read this part either but in his prayer Jacob does two things. As we would expect he prays for God to deliver him, but before that he does something even more important that we can all learn from. Listen to what he says in verses 9-10: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.”

Jacob acknowledges all that God has done for him and his ancestors in uncharacteristic humility, but then he reminds God of the promises God made to him that convinced him to come back home and face the music. Why would he need to do that? Surely God doesn’t forget his promises! No, Jacob is reminding himself who he belongs to, he’s claiming his blessing from God, and we’ll see how he does that again in much more dramatic fashion in the best-known part of this text.

After Jacob prays and sends his family across the river we are told “Jacob was left alone.” He is really alone. Jacob is like you and me. We try to cure our homesickness with a host of home remedies—large doses of education, exercise—be it running marathons or climbing corporate ladders, accumulating social media friends who fill our time and the lack of peace we feel. Power, money, prestige, new cars, new clothes, new houses, new jobs, new spouses, booze, beauty treatments, Grecian Formula. We try it all don’t we? But when we let our defenses down and find ourselves alone with nothing to do—remember those were the times the homesickness got you at camp too? When we’re not too busy to think and feel, then the old feeling sneaks up on us and we start feeling like that motherless child again.

“Jacob is alone” Genesis says, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” But this is no ordinary man and the wrestling match is not the WWF! These two combatants struggle all night long and the match is still a draw as morning approaches, although Jacob’s hip will never be the same. And the man says, “let me go, for the day is breaking.” That’s our first clue that this is no ordinary man. This is God and they both know that if any mortal sees the face of God he or she will die. God is protecting Jacob even as they struggle by warning him not to see God’s face. But Jacob refuses to let go unless God blesses him. Jacob realizes that God’s blessing is more important than life itself, and after God gives Jacob a new name “Israel” because he has striven with God and prevailed God blesses Jacob and the struggle is over as abruptly as it began.

It is after wrestling with God and only then that Jacob is ready to meet his brother. Like another prodigal son that Jesus talked about, it is an encounter with God that gives us courage to confess and face our human struggles. Jacob had to wrestle all night long, and sometimes those dark nights can last for weeks or years, but if we can hang on to God above all else, morning will come and with it the courage to carry on.

I slept in last Monday and as I got up I remember thinking that I had missed my usual breakfast with the CBS Morning News team. Unfortunately the news of the massacre in Las Vegas lasted all day. The cumulative effect of bad news stories recently, each one worse than the last, knocked me into a funk that lasted several days. I’d probably still be there if I didn’t have this sermon to prepare. Sermons are a constant reminder to preachers that no matter how we are feeling, Sunday’s coming!

That’s important for all of us, not just preachers. We Christians worship on Sunday because that’s the day of Christ’s resurrection; and that is our reminder that no matter how bad the news is or how dark the skies are – Sunday’s coming. I gladly borrow that phrase from the great preacher Tony Campolo who made it famous in a Good Friday sermon entitled “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!”

When personal or national tragedies threaten to blow us away we can be like Lt. Dan in the movie “Forrest Gump.” Lt. Dan got his legs blown off in Viet Nam and was angry at Forrest for saving his life. But a few years later he is reunited with Forrest and helps him run the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. In one great scene Dan and Forrest are out on their shrimp boat during Hurricane Carmen. Double amputee Lt. Dan climbs the mast of the ship as the waves are crashing onto the deck below and he shouts at God, “Is that all you’ve got? You call that a storm?” This foul-mouthed atheist has learned in the school of hard knocks that life goes on if we just hang on till morning comes. Psalm 30 puts it this way: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Anyone here have trouble handling big changes in life? That’s homesickness. Because change, even positive change, is hard, and much of the division in our nation today is because change is coming at us at warp speed. We are so homesick for a simpler day that we resent those who represent change – immigrants, people of different races or faiths or political opinions. And on top of that this baby boomer is homesick for the things my aging body just won’t do anymore. We seniors are eager for younger folks to take over leadership of businesses and families and churches, but darn it the younger generation doesn’t always do it the way we’ve done it for years.

Being an itinerant United Methodist pastor has comes with built in homesickness. Like people in many professions and businesses we move a lot, and that makes it hard to know where home really is. I grew up in the small town of Wapakoneta in northwest Ohio. Wapak is where I’m from but I rarely go back there. My parents moved away from there while I was in college, and I moved away intellectually as I accumulated multiple degrees in higher education. I still have several aunts and uncles back there in Auglaize County, but I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been on a 50 year ego trip that has kept me away from that extended family. None of them went to college and as my theology and worldview changed over the years I felt like we just didn’t have anything in common. I don’t want to argue about religion or politics with them, and quite frankly I felt superior.

Over Labor Day weekend this year I went back home with my two sisters. I must give my sisters credit for initiating the trip. It was my one sister’s 50th high school reunion, and while we were there they suggested we visit our three uncles who live there.

It was a marvelous experience with all three of them but the priceless moment came when we visited the one we call Uncle Frog in the hospital. He’s just 15 years older than I; so when I was a kid he was a big strong athletic guy that I adored. He took time to play catch with me and made me feel like I mattered. Now he’s 86 and has a very bad heart. He knows he doesn’t have long to live. He called me over to his hospital bed and got very emotional as he tried to ask me something, but the words wouldn’t come. I knew he wanted me to conduct his funeral when the time comes because we had talked about that after another uncle’s funeral 10 years ago when Frog was still in good health. As I held his hand and assured him I’d be there for him I realized I was home.

We can go home again if we’re willing to struggle and cling on to God’s blessing which is always wherever we are on life’s journey. Beyond the beliefs and ideologies that divide us is a deeper human bond we all share. It’s love that bridges those divisions but we have to cross that bridge to get home.

There was a movie many years ago called “The Poseidon Adventure” about a group of people who were trapped in a ship that got turned upside down in a storm. Isn’t that how life feels sometimes? Like everything is upside down and we can’t find our way home. The theme song from that movie captures the truth that Jacob learned wrestling with God. The song says, “There’s got to be a morning after if we can hold on through the night.” Whatever darkness or struggle you are facing – just hang on to God till morning comes.

Jacob refuses to let go till God blesses him, and in the strength of that blessing he immediately goes to meet his brother. What happens then is summed up in this description from Genesis 33: “He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” The prodigal was limping, but he was home.
Amen